Sunday, 8 November 2009

Afghanistan and Remembrance

Strong feelings were expressed, and questions asked, at Remembrance this year. I was at St Paul’s Bledlow Ridge, a lovingly looked after village church which is (wonderfully) kept open in the day. There’s a John Piper West window which some see as a vision of heaven. Some people present knew well the village names on the war memorial, and it was good to have a crowd there to keep faith with the dead of the last century’s wars, and show their gratitude for the basics we all easily take for granted, as well as express our pride in the dedication and professionalism of our armed services today.

This year, however, with news reports of a British soldier killed yesterday in Afghanistan, and seven others in the past week, people were asking questions. Remembrance felt very much more immediate than has often been the case in previous years. The people of Wooton Basset have evolved a mark of remembrance and respect, almost weekly of late, to dead service personnel as their bodies are repatriated. Millions of ordinary people are united in their respect and admiration for those who serve in our forces, putting their lives at risk daily for the rest of us.

Everyone this morning very much expressed this admiration, and wanted to show solidarity with our troops and their families in the UK. However, people are seriously uncertain as to the aims of the current exercise. It’s not that they doubt the war is winnable, because nobody seems to know what “winning” would amount to. Many who are entirely supportive of our service personnel feel they owe it to those who are risking their lives daily for us to ask our politicians hard questions the troops can’t.

On a micro- scale our forces are doing what they are being asked to do, whatever the cost. However, the bigger macro aim is unclear, and nobody is hearing a clear or convincing answer to the question of what our macro-aims might be from the politicians who put our troops in danger in the first place. Simply asserting it’s all somehow vaguely necessary, without explaining what and why, is not enough. Those making big sacrifices, along with the rest of us, deserve better. Perhaps greater clarity is unachievable for as long as the Americans don’t know what they’re trying to achieve there either.

It was interesting to be asked, as someone who has studied Victorian history, about our previous three wars in Afghanistan, and what might be learnt from them.

1839-42 (First Afghan War)
This proved that there is no such country as Afghanistan, just a ragbag of local loyalties and warlords. Therefore any attempt to turn it into a conventional buffer state between the Indian empire and Russia did nothing but stimulate Russian interest in the region, and inaugurate a new phase of what came to be known as the “Great Game.” The war proved there’s no such “nation” as Afghanistan except in the vaguest notional terms, and it was an easier place to get into than out of.

1878-1880 (Second Afghan War)
This was the war in which literary fans may recall Sherlock Holmes’ chum Dr Watson served. It demonstrated clearly the utter hostility of the terrain, the limited usefulness of modern arms technology, and the utter impossilibility of imposing coherent government on it, along with the lack of any real British interest in the place.

The British concluded that as long as it was that hostile to Western culture and mores it would be equally hostile to the Russians. The way the treaty of Gandamak broke down, showing itself unnecessary as well as unenforceable, showed the perils of backing any one local leader too closely. Eventually, the British withdrew their resident from Kabul. There was nothing to be gained by interference in the complex internal dynamics of the place, for Britain or Russia.

1919 (Third Afghan War)
This was the shortest Afghan war yet, and yielded only one major additional conclusion of value. What was learnt was that in any operations in Afghanistan ground communications were unnecessarily hazardous. The RAF should therefore be the lead service in any future operations that might need to be carried out in the mountains.

You might think that a flood of ground troops (what some call a surge) could somehow sort everything and transform the place into something other than it has consistently proved to be, in military terms, over the past 170 years. I’m not sure the Russians would agree with you there, after their experiences on the ground in the late eighties. Of course in the eighties the West was arming and resourcing the local mujahideen, but it’s hard to think that was the only reason the Russian occupation failed.

So, it’s time for the politicians who started this war to tell us, and especially the troops whose lives they are risking daily, where and how they think it should end. Osama and chums legged it to Pakistan years ago now, and most money and resource for terrorism comes from Pakistan and Saudi. So what are doing in Afghanistan, and how are going to know when we’ve done it? We’re all ears, and very much hoping the current ceremonies at Wooton Basset will not become a permanent fixture of our national life...


UKViewer said...

It is interesting that you reflect history and the views of Parishioners in your post.

The questions you raise, are the concern of many of us, who while we have whole-hearted support for the troops, remain to be convinced of the validity and justification for waging war there at this time.

The current campaign started as a peace support operation, to allow Afghanistan to become the western style democracy, which we believe they deserve. In particular, given the Taliban Human Rights record, their extremes of behaviour, their treatment of women and the real poverty and deprivation of the majority of the population of a war torn country.

Having achieved that, with the overthrow of the Taliban, very much like Iraq, we had not asked ourselves - What next?

No plan or strategy existed or appears to exist for the Country, and certainly, self-determination by the population appears to be unworkable due to wide spread corruption and the tribal culture and allegiances and war lords, who rule their own areas, with little influence from Kabul.

Politicians got us in to this mess, now they plead prevention of terrorism, getting rid of drugs, and most stupidly, preventing more illegal migrants coming to the UK.

I do not see any difference between Political Parties over the issue, as perhaps all cannot see any vote winning solutions in it. So the mess will drag on, consume billions of pounds and more on both sides will be killed, maimed etc, without any discernable moral justification.

Of course, where is the voice of the various denominations of Christianity in this? - The Arch Bishop implied criticism of Politicians during the Iraq Memorial Service, but I have not heard or seen many other voices raised publicly over the issues, apart from perhaps Nick Baines and now yourself.

We can offer prayer, raise funds to help local peoples, mission is an option, but is dangerous in the climate. It appears that this will turn into another Vietnam, where in the end, public opinion might cause a withdrawel, rather fulfilling the original objectives, to make life better, safer and more secure for the people of Afghanistan.

Vinaigrette girl said...

This morning, on R4, a professional soldier reported precisely and in detail why he is going back for a third tour of duty. He and his troops are embedded within their local culture; they are alongside the Afghanis whom they protect nightly and daily; they are behaving not like politicians or armchair pundits or journalists but actually as much like Christ as they can in the circumstances, by being not apart from but within the community. They eat and sleep and work with the people whom they serve.

Surely by now the church has begun to accept that nothing on earth is accomplished purely by top-down diktats or by believing what journalists say to sell the news? It's not that questions shouldn't be asked but they should be asked of the right people: the ones who do the job itself. Should we be where we are in Afghanistan? has anybody seriously considered where we would be if we weren't there?

Anonymous said...

I'd be happier with Vinaigrette girl's comment if she recognised that the people we should ask our those of Afghanistan.
Adrian C

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Vinaigrette girl said...

@anonymous, Vinaigrette Girl here. Which people? If you ask the women and girls, they say "yes, it's better for us by far if you're here." If you ask certain men, the answer is "No, we don't like you here at all, go away." Every country in the world which has made any progress, in any sense, does so by empowering its female population. So: which people, I ask you, do we listen to?

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